Month: October 2011

Brainology for All! A Bill of Kid Rights

One proven way to improve our lives is to use the What-Will-the-Grandkids-Chuckle-About Method. This method involves asking yourself a simple question: what are you doing right now that your grandkids will see as laughably ass-backward 50 years from now?

For example, we look back to the early sixties and see societal habits that seem, in retrospect, comically short-sighted — habits like sexism, the way they ate, smoked, drank, drove (usually at the same time).

So what will your grandkids be chuckling about in 2061?

Here’s my answer: Brain Ed.

I think our grandkids will look back and say, Back in 2011, parents and teachers wanted kids to learn, but somehow they didn’t bother teaching kids the most important part — how the learning machine actually works. What the heck were those people thinking?

And our grandkids will be absolutely, positively, 100-percent right.

Right now, teachers, parents, and coaches in our society focus their attention on teaching the material — whether it’s algebra, soccer, or music. This is the equivalent of trying to train athletes without informing them that muscles exist. It’s like teaching nutrition without mentioning vegetables or vitamins. We feverishly cram our classrooms with whiz-bang technology, but fail to teach the kids how their own circuits are built to operate.

It’s all completely understandable, of course. Our parenting and teaching practices evolved in an industrial age, when we presumed potential was innate, brains were fixed (just as we presumed smoking was healthy and three-martini lunches were normal). But that doesn’t make it right. In fact, you could argue that teaching a child how their brain works is not just an educational strategy — it’s closer to a human right.

So as long as we’re on a soapbox, let’s take this all the way and make it official.

The New Bill of Kid Rights:

  • 1. Every child has the right to know how their brain grows
  • 2. Every child has the right to a teacher who understands how skill develops
  • 3. Every child has the right to an environment that’s aligned with the way skills grow in the brain

(Anything we need to add to that?)

Here’s a suggestion: teach brain-ed in schools. Why not devote a chunk of time, especially at the start of the school year, to teaching how the brain grows when it learns. To teaching how repetition builds speed and fluency. To helping kids to understand and experience the biological truth that struggle makes you smarter, that the brain grows when challenged.

Some progressive schools are already doing this. Last week I visited Castilleja School in Palo Alto (just down the street from Steve Jobs’s house, naturally) where they’re offering a new class called “Brainology” for seventh graders. In it, students learn how the brain is built to grow. They try out different studying strategies. They learn that the brain functions like a muscle: no pain, no gain.

Even small exposures can have a big impact. Stanford’s Carol Dweck did an experiment where she divided 700 low-achieving middle schoolers into two groups. Both were given an eight-week workshop on study skills, and one group received a 50-minute session that described how the brain grows when it’s challenged. (The other group’s session learned about generic science.) In a few months, the group that had learned about the brain had improved their grades and study habits to the point that teachers, without knowing, could accurately identify which student had been in which group.

It’s not rocket science. In fact, it’s easy, because it pays massive dividends. Plus, it gives our grandkids one less thing to chortle about.

PS — Here’s a good overview of the issue, along with some examples of places that are putting brainology into their organizations.

Forget 10,000 Hours. Try Hans’s 2-Minute Method.

By now, most of you have heard of the Rule of 10,000 Hours, the finding that most world-class experts have spent a minimum of 10,000 hours intensively practicing their craft.

Likewise, many of you are probably familiar with the sensation known as the Rule of 10,000 Hours Wince. This occurs where you realize (whoa!) just how intimidatingly far you still have to go.

Counting hours is a bad idea. Not only because it’s difficult to accurately measure quality practice (the original studies have created a worthy debate, seen here), but also because it tends to lead us toward a royal bummer of a mindset. Developing talent is about enthusiasm and energy. Counting hours can turn us into drudges, marking our tally like a doomed prisoner marking the days on the cell wall. Besides, most of us aren’t trying to become world-class — we’re just trying to be better tomorrow than we are today. What to do?

One good idea was recently offered by one of my favorite people. His name is Hans Jensen, and he’s one of the world’s best music teachers (here’s his website). Hans looks exactly like you’d expect a mad scientist to look, if the mad scientist taught cello and liked to run marathons. His hair is always a little disheveled; his eyes are always wide open, and his mind is always churning with new ideas. Here’s his latest: I call it Hans’s 2-Minute Method.

It works like this:

  1. Pick a specified target you want to perfect. It needs to be small and definable — a chunk, in the parlance. If it’s a tennis serve, target just the toss. If it’s a song, target just the toughest ten seconds. If it’s public speaking, target just the introduction.
  2. Pick a time of day. (Morning works best.)
  3. Be alone. This isn’t about a teacher or coach telling you what to do — it’s about you doing it, by yourself.
  4. Work as urgently and intensively as humanly possible on that target skill for two minutes.
  5. Stop. Walk away. And tomorrow, do it again.

This technique originated with one of Jensen’s students who was strapped for time, but who wanted to learn a complicated etude.  “We were shocked at how well it went,” Jensen said. “The key was total focus and being ruthless about noticing and fixing every tiny mistake from the start.”

Why does it work?

  • It forces you to prioritize and strategize — to look critically at your skill and pick the elements that matter most.
  • It eliminates the sloppiness that often marks shallow practice.
  • It creates a daily habit.
  • It increases intensity. It’s hard to practice with 100 percent intensity for an hour. But for two minutes? That’s achievable.

I also like the 2-Minute Practice because it nudges us toward counting things that matter. Learning is a construction process. It’s possible to get a lot done in a short amount of time, because in the end, it’s not really about time — it’s about making intense, high-quality reaches toward a target.

This also makes me wonder — what other techniques might work like this? How else are you improving the quality of each minute?  I’d love to hear about your mad-scientist experiments.